On the first “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Jerry Seinfeld mentioned in his interview that his doctor told him people live longer, and “90 is a thing now.”
I’ve recently realized the full validity of this statement. I mean, I’ve always known elderly people were around–I just didn’t realize quite how long they were elderly. Ninety really is a thing. At the beginning of this year, I started calling bingo a few times a month at an assisted living home. For the first time, I’m around quite a few older individuals on a fairly frequent basis.
The first lesson I learned while calling bingo is that the residents absolutely hate my hair. Regardless of how I wear it, two ladies in particular are always telling me to “pin it back” or “do something with it.” It’s awkward because I actually do put effort into my hair sometimes, believe it or not.
Also, the activity director didn’t mention this to me, but nobody likes anything other than regular bingo. Big picture frame, little picture frame, Big T, four corners–every time I announce an irregular Bingo formation, the participants’ respect for me drops an average of 13.7 percent.
While some residents aren’t particularly fond of my hair/bingo calling style, others can’t remember if they like me or not.
It’s Thursday, 3:02 p.m. I’m shuffling my giant bingo cards. Yes, the numbers are on giant cards instead of small, easily randomized plastic balls. Contrary to my original hope, I don’t get to spin a big metal contraption and pull out a ping-pong ball with “B6” written on it.
“Hello, honey! What’s your name?” Eleanor asks me for the second time that day. She doesn’t always remember her name is Eleanor. Everyone calls her “Brownie,” and I have no idea why.
“Kyra,” I answer. I then tell her I’m 17-years-old because I know from experience this will be her second question.
“Seventeen!” She exclaims. She grabs my arm quite tightly for a woman of her age, but also in a surprisingly endearing way. “Why! You’re just starting out! I’m 96 … Well, I’m ninety-something.”
My mathematically-disinclined brain immediately begins its calculations … Ninety-six minus 17 … Carry the one … Pull out phone … Bring up calculator app … type … Holy crap. When I was born, Eleanor was 79. That’s like, really old.
Eleanor is one of my favorite residents. She gets bingo at least once each time I’m there, but she rarely notices. Last Thursday, I looked over at her table and saw she had not one, not two, but three different bingos. When I told her she won in like, three different places, she laughed and said, “Oh, goodness. So I have. I just got so busy visiting I almost forgot I was playing!”
I often wonder if, in 1996, the year I was born, Eleanor knew she had Alzheimer’s. I wonder if she had already started living at the assisted living home. According to my calculations, when she was born, the year was 1918 or 1919. World War I was ending, segregation was normal, women didn’t quite yet have the right to vote. She lived through the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II, The Vietnam War, The Civil Rights Movement, The Cold War, the invention of the internet, 9/11, the election of a black president. And now, she doesn’t remember hardly any of it.
I find it incredibly discontenting that someone can live a rich, full life and then spend the last 15 or so years stuck in a care facility. Maybe people visit you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you don’t notice if they do or not. Facilities like the assisted living one at which I call bingo serve as places for the elderly to make their transition to the grave as peaceful and painless as possible, which is good because if I make it that long, I will probably end up in one.
I have a crazy history of dementia in my family. I am positive I will get it eventually. I have family members who had it on both sides, and my memory is already terrible. So, what is the point of trying to live a full life if, at the end of it all, you don’t even remember your own name? I’ve struggled with this question, and I found part of the answer in the oddest of places: Spanish class.
For some reason the other day, my Spanish 3 class had a conversation about dementia. While I’m not sure what that had to do with learning the Imperfect Subjunctive tense, my teacher made a good point. She said she believed those in the last stages of Alzheimer’s hold on to who they truly were at the other stages of their lives. She said she had an elderly family member with Alzheimer’s who spent the last few years of her life trying to give everyone around her facial tissues because, in her mind, she was giving to the poor–an activity she spent many of her years before dementia doing.
If what my Spanish teacher asserts is true, Eleanor was probably the sweetest person ever. She still is. Some people get dementia and become the mean-spirited person they might have previously only been on the inside, but Eleanor is the opposite. Every time Eleanor makes a mistake, she is overly apologetic. When she asks for me to repeat a number during bingo, she always says thank you. She compliments me every time she sees me. Given, it’s the same compliment, but still thoughtful.
If and when I get dementia, I hope I can be half as genuinely kind and caring as Eleanor. Until then, I will work to make sure when I’m senile, I prove I was a good person the first three-fourths of my life.